Deploying ethnic minority medical staff from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) to dance for patients infected with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a tactic by the government to divert public attention from its mishandling of the outbreak, members of the Uyghur exile community said after a viral video caused outrage this week.
On Wednesday, a video went viral on social media depicting an ethnic Kazakh named Bargul Tolheng, who the official Global Times network said is from the Second Hospital in the XUAR capital Urumqi, teaching patients with “light symptoms” traditional Uyghur dances from the region at the Fang Cang Hospital in the virus epicenter, in Hubei province’s Wuhan city, while wearing a medical hazmat suit.
“The leader of our group found that the patients are in low morale which would not be good for their recovery,” the Global Times quoted Tolheng as saying in a report published after the release of the video on Wednesday.
“He suggested that I perform Xinjiang dances to cheer them up … After the dance, many patients chatted with me happily and asked me how I could manage to wiggle my neck while wearing a medical outfit.”
Tolheng was among a group of 102 medical workers that comprised the second batch sent to assist in Wuhan from the XUAR, which the Times said included 21 ethnic minorities and 31 members of China’s ruling Communist Party.
The report said that she had volunteered to travel to Wuhan to help combat the spread of the virus, which as of Friday had infected 64,460 people worldwide and 63,866 people within China, causing a total of 1,384 deaths—all but two in the country of its origin.
While RFA’s Uyghur Service was not immediately able to verify who had originally published the video to social media, the clip was heavily promoted by state media, suggesting that it was sanctioned by authorities.
Speaking to RFA on Friday, Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), suggested that Tolheng’s dance was orchestrated by the government to gloss over how its failure to address the virus at an earlier stage led to it becoming an epidemic.
“China organized performances by Uyghur and Kazakh medical personnel at the hospital in Wuhan for patients infected with coronavirus for the purpose of deflecting the anger of the Chinese people over the government’s failure to contain and control the spread of the virus,” he said.
“Completely ignoring the health risks faced by the Uyghur and Kazakh medical personnel, China used them as a political propaganda tool to appease the mounting anger coming from the Chinese people.”
WUC President Dolkun Isa told RFA that having ethnic minority healthcare workers dance for patients “gives the impression that Chinese authorities sent Uyghur and Kazakh performers, not medical personnel, to the Wuhan hospital.”
But he also expressed frustration that the authorities in China regularly change their narrative on minorities in the XUAR—portraying them as religious extremists or docile, contented citizens who happily accept Beijing’s rule—to suit their whims.
Authorities are believed to have detained as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” in a vast network of internment camps in the XUAR since April 2017, and ethnic minorities in the region are deemed “separatists” for speaking their own language, as well as practicing their religion and culture.
“But here, when Uyghur and Kazakh culture serves CCP (Chinese Communist Party) interests, China uses it for damage control and pacifying public anger,” Isa said.
In the three days since the video of the dancing was published, reactions have been mixed—even in a country where dancing, happy ethnic minorities are a staple of state media coverage.
The official China Global Television Network applauded the video on Twitter, suggesting that the Kazakh doctor was "bringing optimism and fun to the hospital," while China’s Xinhua News Agency called the dancing "heartwarming."
The official China Daily labeled her an "#EverydayHero" who "sought to lighten the mood for novel #coronavirus pneumonia patients."
A twitter user named PATRIOT said the video shows that "Uyghur Muslims receive professional education just like us" and that "they love their Han brothers and sisters."
But others suggested that Tolheng had been forced to dance for the patients and questioned how this kind of interaction was helping to deal with the outbreak.
Timothy Grose, an assistant professor of China studies at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, wrote on Twitter that he "thought it was a hoax."
Another Twitter user named Frankie Huang said they could not help thinking about the ethnic minority doctors from the XUAR fighting COVID-19 in Wuhan "while there are over a million Uighurs locked up in detention camps in Xinjiang."
"What must they be feeling when they dance," Frankie Huang wondered. "I can't imagine that they want to dance."
On Facebook, user Zhe Wu called the video "Very surreal! Very odd!” and tagged her post #reallifeismoreunbelievablethanfiction.
Another named Jiamin Hu said watching the video made them “[think] of the dance show from those ‘re-education’ camps,” referring to clips of a routine detainees performed for foreign media that was given a state-sanctioned tour of one of the camps last year as part of China’s bid to challenge reports of rights violations in the facilities.
Reporting by RFA and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities that experts warned recently could lead to an epidemic.
A Facebook post from the English-language website Shanghaiist jokingly captioned the video "Dancing away the coronavirus blues," suggesting that authorities were trying to downplay the severity of the outbreak.
Social media posts reacting to the video by members of the Uyghur exile community were even more critical, with at least one user referring to the incident as a “dance of death.”
Meanwhile, the official China News Service reported the first death from coronavirus inside the XUAR on Thursday—that of an 80-year-old man attached to the 8th Division in Shihezi city under the administration of the “Bingtuan”—a name used to refer to the quasi-military Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC).
At least 65 people were reported infected with COVID-19 in the XUAR as of Friday, including 10 in serious and four in critical condition, while at least 4,622 are currently under medical observation.
Authorities have remained tight-lipped about the epidemic in the XUAR, where the region’s top court recently issued guidelines that included severe punishments for people committing crimes such as “spreading rumors” and “using violence against medical personnel,” and local officials have told RFA that information about COVID-19 and how it has spread is considered a “state secret.”
Recent reports on social media, including one by a medical staffer in the XUAR, suggest that as many as 13,000 people from Wuhan may have entered the region ahead of an order by authorities to shut down all transportation in and out of the city of 11 million people last month, although these numbers could not be independently verified by RFA’s Uyghur Service.
On Thursday, RFA obtained a copy of a document issued on Feb. 2 by the authorities in Urumqi’s Saybagh district which announced that they planned to “seal off” the area beginning at 10:00 a.m. the following day, “in order to protect our district residents’ health and prevent security personnel from getting infected.”
“During the seal-off period, nobody is allowed to leave this sub-district except under special circumstances,” the announcement reads, adding that only people with “entry/exit cards” will be allowed to do so, and that no one who is not from Saybagh will be permitted to visit the area.
“During the seal-off period, individuals who need to leave to work as civil servants, medical personnel or in public security must provide their work ID, license, and relevant documents from the community affairs bureau so that they can enter and exit the sub-district regularly.”
Other parts of the region are similarly affected, according to reports.
Sources in Atush (in Chinese, Atushi) city, in the XUAR’s Kizilsu Kirghiz (Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture, recently told RFA that authorities had declared a state of emergency, rolling out two-meter (6.5-foot) fencing to block local intersections and ordering the city’s approximately 200,000 inhabitants to stay within their homes for roughly three weeks, while all visitors have been quarantined.
State media recently reported that authorities had erected a 4,000 square-meter (43,000 square-foot) hospital dedicated to fighting COVID-19 in the seat of Kumul (Hami) prefecture on the border with Gansu province in seven days, after breaking ground on Jan. 31.
The hospital, which was fully equipped and functional by Feb. 9, is believed to be one of the first to be constructed within 10 days as part of an emergency response to the rapid spread of the virus since authorities built a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan that began accepting patients on Feb. 3.
Reported and translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.